- Published: 14 November 2014 14 November 2014
Lalita Tademy is the New York Times Bestselling author of two historical novels. Her debut, Cane River, was Oprah’s summer Book Pick in 2001 and was translated into 11 languages, and her second novel, Red River, was selected as San Francisco’s One City, One Book in 2007. Her third novel is Citizens Creek, which was published this month and was chosen by Southern independent bookstores as their "One Book One South" choice for 2014. Lalita Tademy will be participating in a live Q&A Facebook on November 20th at 8 pm EST as part of the One Book One South southern-wide discussion of the book.
LB: How did this story find you?
LT: Historically based, multi-generation stories intrigue me, and I stumbled across my incredible characters in an out-of-print biography written about a black oilman, Jake Simmons Jr. in Oklahoma who made his fortune in the early to mid 1900’s. Staking a Claim, the Making of a Black Oil Dynasty, by Jonathan Greenburg was instrumental in connecting me to the energy of Cow Tom and Rose. As interesting as Jake Simmons was, what gripped me were the few pages devoted to his mother and his great-grandfather. Cow Tom, a former slave of a Creek Indian chief, rose in the tribe to become an African Creek chief himself. His granddaughter Rose was a fierce woman with a pioneer spirit who raised fourteen children and built her own ranch in Oklahoma. Who could resist these people?
LB: What was the most surprising thing you learned?
LT: I was shocked at how little I knew about Native Americans, and the intersection of blacks and Indians. (By the way, as politically incorrect as it may be to say Indian, between the years of research where all the documentation calls out Indian and living in the 1800s in my head, I’m going to say Indian and not Native American. I hope I’m not offending anyone). I didn’t know that Indians owned slaves in the south before they were Removed along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma with their slave property. I didn’t know that some slaves were able to use their multilingualism (speaking English as well as several Indian dialects, including Muskoke and Hitchiti) to serve as interpreters and negotiators between the tribes and the U.S. government, earning money to buy their freedom and ascend within the tribe.
LB: The fact that Native American tribes owned slaves is not a well-known aspect of American history. What were some of the differences of being a slave to Creek Indians and being a slave to whites?
LT: In some cases, there were no differences at all. Practices and attitudes differed among and between tribes regarding how they treated their slaves. Some tribes, particularly many of the Lower Creeks, who chose to fight on the side of the Confederates in the Civil War, mirrored the practices of white plantation owners. Other tribes, particularly the Upper Creeks, most of whom chose the Union side in the Civil War, treated their slaves more as members, working for the tribal community. Whether the descendants of Freedmen freed by the War are considered citizens of the tribe is still a question today, and was the defining issue of Cow Tom’s life’s work.
LB: How did a slave become a member of the Creek tribe?
LT: Again, this question has to be answered differently depending on which branch of Creek tribe you talk about. Some Native American Creeks were vehemently opposed to black or slave citizenship, and some were not. Cow Tom bought himself free before the Civil War, and considered himself a working member of the tribe. There wasn’t a ceremony, per se.
After the Civil War, some black towns sprang up within the Creek territory, side by side with the Indian towns, and their leadership served in Creek Government. Cow Tom was a member of the House of Kings, a governing body of all Creeks, Indian and black.
LB: You based this on a real family--did you have any concerns about being able to tell the story well, even if there was not much documentation, and being truthful (and realistic) while still remaining respectful to the family?
LT: I always have concerns about being able to tell a story well. That’s the life of a writer. But I ended the telling of this story in the early 1900’s. My aim was to present a tale based on remarkable people who lived and died in the past (this is historical fiction, after all), and not to bring it up to the present time. I’ve used this same intention in 2 other historical novels, Cane River and Red River, both of which drew from my own family, which this does not. Whether I'm basing a tale on my family or not, I don’t want to present a story in the current memory of anyone living. My concern for authenticity rests with representing the complicated times in which characters lived as accurately and respectfully as I can. I strongly believe Citizens Creek is a story worth sharing, because these are characters who left a wonderful legacy of commitment to family and community, who valued hard work and advancement, and who made a difference under almost impossible circumstances.
LB: Was there any part of the story you were tempted to leave out? Were there parts you left out that you were tempted to put in?
LT: I was tempted to leave out the scope of Rose’s husband’s infidelity, which was well documented. I was tempted to tone down how often some force, tribe or U.S. government or boomer tried to dispossess this family of the land they worked, but the continual assault was a significant part of the story, the way they were forced to live, and I left most in.
LB: The scene where Cow Tom is facing the black Seminole and his two sons gave me terrible dreams. Was it hard to write? Were there any parts of Cow Tom and Rose’s stories you found difficult to tell?
LT: The scene with the Seminole father was very tough to write, and I took it out and put it back in several times. I finally left the scene in because Cow Tom was constantly forced to walk a tightrope between immovable forces, with no easy personal or ethical choices, and he was human, and didn’t always find a satisfactory way out. I also found the non-nurturing parts of Rose’s upbringing difficult to depict, but again, believe this shaped who she became as a grown woman.
LB: Identity is a major theme in Citizens Creek. It comes through in the way Cow Tom, Bella, and Rose are named, but also in the way the family fights to hold on to the pieces of paper that say they are free, their citizenship in the Creek tribe and to the ranch they built. "Make your own family," is how Cow Tom puts it. What did you find different in Cow Tom's family history from the standard American archetype of the pioneer going west to make their own name and fortune and identity? What was similar?
LT: I avoided Cow Tom as archetype. Like many slaves, he burned to be free, but also to create a family he didn’t have growing up. He was smart, and clever, and had the additional burden of needing to operate within a slavery framework that limited how ambitious he could appear to be or how to make certain things happen. But both Cow Tom and Rose defined and prioritized their family, in different ways, and were intensely committed to keep the family together.
LB: Why was it important for Cow Tom, and Rose, and eventually Eugene, to "go off" in order to grow up and become their own person?
LT: So much of identity is formed when you test yourself on different “battlefields”, and not those circumstances where people think they already know you. Each character needs the challenge of growing outside the gaze of those who know them best to become who they ultimately can.
LB: Was the historical Rose really a twin? Where did "Twin" come from?
LT: In a historical novel, some things are documented, and other things are, frankly, made up to help the story flow. I usually don’t disclose which is which in my novels. But just this once, I’ll say that according to records, Rose had a twin who died early, and I couldn’t resist putting his spirit into the story as she grew up.
“Sometimes, when leadership is not given, it must be taken”
LB: One thing that comes through in Citizens Creek is the many ways Cow Tom, and Rose, take control over their own destinies even when their situations are very precarious or other people are supposedly in control of their fate. Often Cow Tom is able to exercise some power even when he is ostensibly powerless—such as the way he becomes the arbitrator between the slaves and the white men on the ship. How usual or unusual was this?
LT: I believe we don’t acknowledge enough how many events that defy the stereotypes happen. Cow Tom says “Sometimes, when leadership is not given, it must be taken”, and he lives his life in that way. Rose runs a ranch where the hands would rather take their orders from her husband, but she won't concede that. These “defiances” of convention are what enable different outcomes, and the reason I believe these characters made a difference in their respective worlds.
LB: How do you make sofki?
LT: Now here is a question I am going to dodge. I have it on good authority that you can make this corn dish in a day, that it can't be done in less than 3 days, that it stinks to high heaven, that it is the consistency of stew, that it is like a paste, that it is a thin gruel, that it is delicious, that it doesn’t taste great but you eat it to survive. I cannot reconcile all these accounts, and someone is going to challenge me, and they will be right to do so. Therefore, next question.
LB: One of my favorite things about Citizens Creek is that it shows how rich and deep the culture is among slave populations. That is often ignored or glossed over in standard history and historical fiction, which tends to focus on the exploitation of slaves, not who they were as people. Was it difficult to strike a balance between the brutal repression slaves endured, and the steadfastness with which they held on to their own culture? Did you worry about doing justice to both aspects of a life in slavery?
LT: As I said before, I worry about everything. As a writer, that’s my job. But I have no interest in the “One Story” of slavery. The whips and chains and suffering and victimhood, even though there is plenty to lament. To survive slavery, let alone to thrive, indicates a remarkable will, and that I do have interest in. A dehumanizing system diminishes everybody, but the characters I'm drawn to figure out how to deal with the hand that they're dealt and make a difference. It was remarkable to me how many superstitions were embedded in the Creek culture, and in the slave culture, and Cow Tom’s wife Amy displayed a combination of both, making her own rich gumbo.
LB: I think Citizens Creek has much to say about what it means to be "American." But did Cow Tom – fictional or historical -- think of himself as "an American," do you think?
LT: My fictional Cow Tom did not transcend race, by any means, and fought his entire life to pull up his Freedmen brothers and sisters to protect them by treaty. I think American meant something different in the 1800’s than today, and I suspect he thought more in terms of being a Citizen, a valuable and contributing member of his community, dedicated to inclusion and contribution.
As for the real Cow Tom, who’s to say?
LB: There's another chapter to the story of Cow Tom's family: Rose and Jake's son Jake Simmons, Jr. goes on to found an oil dynasty in Oklahoma. Are you going to write that story?
LT: Definitely not. It takes me 3-4 years to write a historical novel, and I've already written the part of the story that lit my fire. Now it’s time to move on.